In politics, would be leaders are spurring us to hate and to fear. Worse, they are gathering crowds to follow them down the road of prejudice, racism, and oppression. And so here we are again, needing an antidote. After last week’s news of Harper Lee’s death, I’ve been reflecting on one such antidote: her famous book, To Kill a Mockingbird.
There is no better time to remember, read, or reread the book. Here are eight reasons to love To Kill a Mockingbird:
Atticus. He is able to be what no one else around him can be: fair, just, compassionate, good. In Atticus we have the ordinary-man hero who makes us believe it is possible to stand up and do what’s right when everyone else is sitting down. (For more, I wrote a blog post earlier on why Atticus is my hero. Read it here.)
Scout. Harper Lee makes us fall in love with this seven year old. She is curious and precocious, funny and innocent. And when she begins to see that the world is a less-than-beautiful place, we mourn the loss. And her loss, of course, is ours, too; we think of good and evil, of paradise lost, of the fall and redemption. Not many 7 year olds can lead us to such deep places.
Boo Radley. Out of the shadows, an unexpected savior. Who would have thought that help would come from a troubled, reclusive misfit? Harper Lee reminded us that people can surprise us, and that just sometimes, people rise above our expectations.
Maycomb. The town is everytown. The men and women who live there are Everyman and Everywoman. There are town gossips, church hypocrites, inexperienced teachers, harsh parents, favorite uncles, and cantankerous old ladies who die of cancer. There are also women that make cakes and boys that do mischief and men that gather to do evil at night. Race divides, as does social class and income. There is snobbery and do-goodism and ostracism and unexpected kindness. In Maycomb we see our neighbors. We see ourselves.
Childhood. When I taught this book, even my 14 years olds became nostalgic for days gone by. Lee helped us remember that longing for a place of innocence and beauty is ok.
“Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the treehouse; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape…”
Empathy. It’s a often quoted line: and one of the strongest themes of the book.
“You’ll never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Atticus taught it, and Scout learned it. And when we read it, we are reminded that it is true.
Good Writing. A good author can make us laugh, cry, and hold our breath in the same chapter. Done, Done and Done.
A cure. In an early chapter, a rabid dog is loose in Maycomb. The children are called inside; everyone in town locks himself or herself behind closed doors and peers out the windows. Atticus however, takes his rarely-used shotgun, strides right into the middle of the street, and with one shot rids the town of danger. And then of course, the book goes on about racism and prejudice and the unjust ways we treat each other. Atticus and Scout repeatedly show us what to do. With them as models, Harper Lee offered us a cure:
In order to bring about change, ordinary people must leave the confines of their locked doors and take on those “dangerous dogs” of hatred and fear and injustice. Ordinary people must affirm that a human’s value is not tied to skin color or creed. People that are good must confront those swept up in a mob mentality and say “Hey, don’t you have a child? Aren’t you human?” (Check out TKAM, Chapter 15) Finally, ordinary people must be courageous enough to “climb into the skin” of those who are different than we are.
I am glad that several million teenagers will read this book this year in their highschools. Perhaps they will learn what their voting parents have forgotten. Maybe they can even remind those angry, fearful adults why it’s a sin to To Kill a Mockingbird.